Serve up a statement along with your dinner.

This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Columbus Weddings, published December 2018.

Some do it for social or sentimental reasons. Others, to adhere to cultural or family tradition. Then there are those who simply want a jaw-dropping reaction from their wedding guests. Whatever the reason, many couples are making a statement with the food they select for their receptions—from whole suckling pigs to dishes reminiscent of their first date or their late grandmother’s homemade soup.

“It’s a fun, unique challenge,” says Daniel Heckathorn, executive chef at The Blackwell Inn, which now exclusively offers customized wedding menus. “I want the food to be a memory for the couple. Everything is more personalized now. Why should the wedding food be any different? Doing weddings like this makes sense in our culture.”

Heckathorn asks couples to fill out a questionnaire that asks about everything from their favorite aromas and snacks to childhood memories and what they ate on their first date.

“I don’t want to just know what kind of food they like; I want to get part of their story,” he says. “It’s not about making something super over-the-top. It has to appeal to the public. It’s the small touches that make a bigger impact.”

For a couple honeymooning in Hawaii, for example, he added an orchid on their salad plates. For a popcorn-loving pair, he created a popcorn-encrusted chicken entrée. For the groom from China marrying a bride from the States, a teriyaki-braised pork belly taco in a Chinese pancake shell with daikon and carrot slaw was a hit.

“There are a lot of little things peppered into the menus to try to personalize it,” he says. “You can have a great prime rib at your wedding, but it won’t have the same impact.”

Pretty Plates

When a couple really wants a more standard option, like prime rib or filet mignon, a creative presentation on the plate can still make a big statement.

“We had one wedding where every course had to be a show-stopper piece,” says Melissa Johnson, managing director of Cameron Mitchell Premier Events. “Instead of doing an entrée course, they did a fish course and a meat course. For the fish course, they had a beautiful, golden, seared sea bass topped off with vibrant green vegetables and chive oil around the plate. But for the meat course they wanted filet, and filets are brown and round, so we had to really think about how to make that pop.”

The chefs set each filet on a bed of caramelized onions with a brined Yukon gold potato galette and topped the tenderloin with bright Italian parsley and shaved truffles. “It was visually appealing, and the flavors on it were phenomenal,” Johnson says.

Couples sometimes want to incorporate wedding colors into their meals for an extra “wow” factor, she adds. “One that comes to mind was a purple and green color scheme.”

While all the food didn’t need to be purple and green, the chefs were able to carry the theme throughout the meal by incorporating items like purple fingerling potatoes, chive oil and basil.

Another type of statement-making meal can come from an old family recipe.

“There was a special broth-based vegetable soup a bride’s grandmother used to make,” Johnson recalls. The grandmother had passed away, but the bride had the recipe and wanted to incorporate it into the meal. “To watch each family member as we served that soup, it was just wonderful to see.”

You Are What You Eat

Some couples make a statement of another sort with their reception menus.

“We’ve done some completely vegan weddings, and those people were definitely making a statement,” says Bob Selhorst, president of Bosc + Brie. “They were saying, ‘We don’t really care if you get any meat today. This is us, and we’re going to do this.’ Farm-to-fork is another statement. They’re saying, ‘I’m a local person, so I only want local stuff.’ These couples choose to live their lives a certain way, and they want to showcase that through their food.”

Other statements may be based on a couple’s heritage or culture. A few years ago, Selhorst served three whole suckling pigs at a wedding reception for a Filipino couple. Although the pigs were not roasted at the actual reception, which was held indoors, Selhorst says they were laid out whole on the buffet table, where each was carved up fresh for guests.

“They loved it—especially the skin,” he says. “We cook it so long the skin almost shatters like peanut brittle. They went crazy over it. Some of them, that’s all they wanted.”

When considering a meal that falls outside typical wedding menu boundaries, Selhorst advises couples to confer with their head chef to ensure he or she is fully on board.

“If you really want to make a statement, it’s probably going to be something out of their comfort range,” he says. “Make sure you have a good rapport with your chef, because you’re going to ask him to stretch in new or different ways. Some of them like a challenge. But make sure you have somebody who is willing to go into this with you.”

Know Your Goal

Another important question to ask before choosing a statement-making meal: Who do you most want to please?

“Is the food for you and your husband, or for you and your guests?” Selhorst asks. “There’s not a whole lot of right or wrong, but you have to decide that. If it’s for your guests, [you shouldn’t] go outside the norms.”

Johnson suggests a work-around when couples have vastly different tastes than most of their guests: order a separate meal.

“If it’s something like, ‘My fiancé just loves pâté or foie gras, but not everybody is going to like it,’ we can just serve it to the groom or to the bride and groom,” she says. “It happens more often that you might think. The couple is served first, and everyone is socializing and no one is really paying attention to what’s on those two plates, so we can serve the bride and groom something different than the rest of the guests.”

That, she adds, is always a better option than forcing a specialized or incompatible taste on 150 guests. She tells the story of a couple who was trying to create a menu that blended the Indian culture of the bride and the Italian heritage of the groom.

“They asked us what two items we thought would taste the best together on a plate, and we had to say, ‘Nothing,’” Johnson recalls. “Sometimes we have to use our experience to guide them in a different direction. We suggested having an Indian-themed cocktail hour, while keeping the entrée Italian—or vice versa—so what you’re eating at the same time makes sense to your mouth.”

Heckathorn says even when taking into consideration what most guests will enjoy, couples should still select foods that are meaningful to them.

“Sometimes couples want to please all of their guests, but sometimes they want their style to be reflective in their food,” he says. “They should not be sacrificing anything on their wedding day. They should have exactly what they want.”

That was the thinking behind Courtney and Mike Marsden’s July 2017 reception menu at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The couple only selected foods they personally liked, but they kept a variety of customizable options available to their guests through a trio of tasting stations offered by the venue’s house caterer, Nourish Events.

“Courtney was eyeing up the taco truck and the mac ’n’ cheese bar,” Mike says. “I liked the sound of the Tuscan market [station], so we were able to accommodate all three.”

“People loved the different food options that we had,” Courtney says, noting that the stations were lined up so people could fill small plates at each one.

“Having that layer of flexibility around the choices was nice in that we didn’t have to stress over picking one or two entrées,” Mike adds.

Everything was a hit, they say. Options included pork or chicken carnitas with black bean, corn and roasted pineapple salad at the taco station, four renditions of macaroni and cheese featuring ingredients from andouille sausage to shiitake mushrooms, and three Italian entrées plus a Roman-style artichoke salad with peppers and sausage at the Tuscan market.

“Even to this day, we have people tell us how much they enjoyed the food at our wedding,” Mike says. “We were extremely satisfied with the food stations.”

That, Heckathorn says, is the ultimate goal.

“I want your guests to walk away saying, ‘That was good; that was different,’” he says. “Maybe they’ll even reminisce about the food they had. But I really want the food to be a memory for the couple. It’s not that often you can participate in a milestone in a person’s life. One bride told [us] after the reception, ‘It felt like someone looked into our hearts in designing the menu.’”

Now that’s quite a statement.